Apple Cider

(800 words)

When Joanna looked up she saw the angel. He towered above her, shrouded in a black cloak and hood, looking down at her. In the light of the flaming torch he held, she saw his face was young, almond-shaped, his full lips pursed, as if intending to speak, … or about to kiss her.
She felt a wave of the most glorious love she’d ever felt, washing over her, the best feeling she could ever remember. “Am I dead?” Looking around, she saw they were surrounded, almost cocooned, by a golden light. She felt completely at peace and asked the question without hesitation.
The angel smiled. “If you were dead, would you be able to speak to me?”
“Well, you know what I mean, ‘not alive’.”
“Of course you’re alive. You see, you hear, you think!”
“But, where are we, where’s Apple Cider?”

The grass was white with frost as the horses were unloaded. Joanna Riley patted her horse on his muzzle. His breath steamed in the air as he snorted with apprehension. “Don’t worry, boy, you’re OK.” She looked into his black eyes and sent a thought, “Don’t worry, I love you, we’ll be OK, you and me, we’ll win, we’re gonna win!”
Joanna said her hellos and chatted to the other riders, ones she trained with and people she knew. Of the other riders, some were friendly, others obnoxious, terrible snobs, she told herself, riders who would barely look in her direction, even though they’d met at other show jumping events.
“Joanna, didn’t know you’d qualified!” It was Nigel Crompton-Smith.
“Hello, Nigel, sorry, Apple Cider had four double clears, didn’t you hear?”
Nigel’s face, rotund and flushed, looked nonplussed. “Oh, er … just didn’t expect to see you here, I suppose, the Prestige Equestrian, you know.”
Joanna could feel the disdain, the superiority burning in the man. “Actually, Nigel, I don’t know. Sorry to disappoint you, but me and Apple Cider made it and we expect to win!”
Nigel’s face reddened even more, then, without speaking, he turned and walked away.
Joanna had made it to the third round, Apple Cider leaping effortlessly over the blue and white poles. After the second, she patted his neck, calming him down. From his heavy breathing, misting in the arena air, she could sense his agitation and nervousness. So many folks at first, all desperate to win. Now just three riders left at 1.3 metres, Cynthia Hives, Nigel Crompton-Smith, and herself, Joanna Riley. She felt a fluttering in her stomach as they took the first jump, then the sound of Apple Cider’s snorting breath, his legs cracking the bars, then tumbling and the sight of the rapidly-approaching earth.
“Apple Cider’s fine, he had a bruise on his thigh, but it’ll heal. You were thrown, you cracked your head on a steel fixing. My name’s Jeremiel, by the way.”
Joanna noticed Jeremiel’s cheek-length blond hair, how it curled around his face, giving it an angelic appearance. She laughed at the irony. “But does that mean I’m dead, I mean, can I go back?”
Jeremiel smiled. “Look, right now, your physical life’s in balance. They’re doing an operation. It’s better you don’t see, so … so you’re here! Look, there was a lot wrong with your life on Earth you know? It wasn’t going to plan.”
“I know.”
Jeremiel sat down. “It’s funny, we angels are always depicted standing, we like to sit down, just like everyone else!”
Joanna found herself seated on a green wicker chair. Her long fingers stroked its ribbed sides. “So, there’s mum and dad, and my kids, George and Annie. I need to go back to them y’know.”
Jeremiel smiled. “I know you do, Joanna, but we can’t always have what we want. Like I say, your life is in the balance right now, but there are factors at play, factors beyond you, and even me, to do with past lives and even future lives. It’s complicated!”
Joanna felt calm in the balm of the angel’s love. “I don’t know. I want to go back. Please?”
Jeremiel sighed. “You had so many problems in your life, Joanna, so many relationships, so many people you couldn’t forgive. It was eating you up.”
“I know.” Joanna felt tears in her eyes.
“Look, in every challenging area of your life right now there is an opportunity to forgive. Forgiveness is a deconditioning of the mind.”
Joanna thought of how she hadn’t spoken to her brother, Saul, for ten years, how she barely spoke to her parents, and how she hated that ghastly Nigel Crompton-Smith. “Look, I know I’ve got work to do still, and there’s my kids.”
“Are you willing to let go of fear and choose love instead?”
The angel took out a golden coin. “Heads or tails?”

Featured in the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural

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